| || |
Trailhead: West Branch
Route: East ridge ~14 miles, 4000+ ft elev ~10 hours
On Saturday October 8th, weather in the Front Range area was beautiful, but throughout the area everyone was preparing for “the first big one” (as the radio announcer kept repeating) – the first big snowstorm of the season, and on radio and TV the broadcasters discussed likely times of arrival (sometime Sunday) and accumulation amounts. I was preparing too and added mittens and a few extra layers to my waiting pack. On Sunday my future brother-in-law, Dave, and I were heading up into the Rawah Wilderness to climb South Rawah Peak, and it looked like gentle tundra hike we’d planned might have a little extra spice to it.
I wasn’t particularly concerned about the weather. The approach to South Rawah from the West Branch trailhead is relatively gentle, and we knew (from a previous hike Dave had taken) that we’d follow a maintained trail for most of the way, staying within tree cover until 10,700 or so. Since it was the “wilderness time” (more than the peak-bagging) that enticed us, we decided the original plan should stand: West Branch Trail to Rawah Trail, and thence to North Fork Trail and the eastern slopes of the peak. If the weather was particularly harsh, we agreed, at least we’d have a great hike in the snow, following the drainage up to the Bench Lake or Twin Crater Lakes area. The plan was straightforward and flexible, and seemed, well, sensible – the first of many rationalizations to follow.
Before heading up to the Fort Collins area (where I’d bunk down with Dave so we could get an early start), I checked the National Weather Service altitude forecast for the area. I expected some mention of snow, but the ***ADVISORY*** I found ran into several paragraphs, and was littered with words like “potent” and “vigorous”. I ran off a copy, using the backs of the map printouts I’d done earlier. I figured I’d discuss it with Dave and also carry it in my pack, though later that evening we agreed that I’d probably jinxed us, because I’d have it with us on the trip, and we’d surely end up as an anecdote in some book like “Deep Survival”… “The two hikers persisted in ascending the drainage, despite the heavily falling snow and the fact that one of the pair had the official winter storm warning printed out and readily available in his pack.”
In truth we were both excited about the snow. Dave has substantial experience and training with snow and altitude, but hadn’t been able to get out in recent years. For me, new to Colorado (relocating from Michigan), this would be my first taste of alpine snow. The summer season had been wonderful, but I was looking forward to the sting in the wind, and that touch of urgency the cold brings.
We woke on Sunday morning at 4AM, stumbled through our morning rituals, and loaded Dave’s truck for the ride. Dave had a thermos of hot tea and was sipping happily in the damp chill. I’d been forced to quit caffeine earlier in the year and was consigned to the “Tension Tamer” herbal brew he had. Appropriate to my mood, perhaps, but hideous tasting. I savored the warmth and tried to ignore its ‘fragrance’.
We headed up Poudre Canyon on route 14, past Rustic, arriving at the trailhead a bit before 6 AM. The light was coming up in the sky, but we used headlamps as we sorted the last of the gear and used the latrine. There was one other truck in the lot, but no sign of anyone around. Even the roads had been empty, except for the moose which scrambled into the undergrowth under the arc of our headlights. I stashed our ‘jinx forecast’ in my pack and checked the temperature. 45 degrees and just a gentle mist in the air. We dressed in light layers (planning on moving quickly up the 6-7 miles of approach) and set off.
We hiked rapidly up along the stream and through stands of aspen. Their leaves lay across the trail and as the light came up we walked on a carpet of patterned dew drops which outlined each leaf. The light was diffuse, and the clouds sat low, obscuring the ridge tops except for occasional windblown vistas. We saw a dusting of snow higher up and smiled at each other.
Above the aspen stands the drainage narrows and becomes steeper, and we heard the West Branch run louder as it began cutting through a sharp gorge. Finally the trail bent nearer to the stream, and we could just glimpse rushing water tumbling down through a rocky defile. There were worn tracks where others had stopped to see the cascades, and I suggested we stop to take a look. We’d been hiking for more than an hour, and it seemed a good place for a break.
In the rocks near the edge I loosened my grip on the trekking poles (I think I was going to get my camera out), and at the same time my foot came off the side of a rock, twisting my ankle inward and down into the ground. I felt a pop along the outside of my foot, and pain.
Dave didn’t see me go down. Later he said, “I heard something and looked over and you were down, kind of fumbling around in the rocks.” He didn’t say it, but I think I looked pretty funny at first, feebly kicking and tangled in my trekking poles.
“I twisted my ankle.”
“How bad is it?”
I was breathing hard as I got up and tested it. “It hurts pretty bad.”
“Can you walk on it?”
“Wait… In a second. It hurts.”
I could put weight on my ankle, but it hurt and I began to sweat. I felt nauseated. We waited some time (one minute, several?), and Dave kept asking me how I felt, and gradually I could say the sick feeling and the pain were passing.
“You looked a little bit ‘shock’y”, he said, after I was breathing better.
“Yeah. I felt crappy. It hurt.”
I walked back (just a few steps) to the trail. The ankle felt weak and sore, but it really didn’t feel too bad. Weird. With every step it felt a bit better. It still hurt some, but walking forward was relatively pain free. We discussed the situation.
It seems obvious that, under an injury situation, the sensible choice would be to turn back, but, the truth is, I didn’t really want to. Neither of us gets very many opportunities to get out (Dave is constantly busy and I am stuck in Michigan most of the time), and I didn’t want to squander this chance. As soon as I’d gotten over the first pop of pain, I’d been wondering how bad it was, and whether I could continue.
“Let’s keep heading up, and I’ll monitor it,” I suggested, “We should at least be able to get to tree-line.” (Earlier we’d rationalized about “wilderness time”, but it’s really tree-line we crave, and our routes are usually designed to keep us above the trees as long as possible, given weather and time.)
“I’ll lead and set the pace,” I suggested. “It might take a little while to warm it up. It’s stiff.”
The first few yards were tender, but the ankle rapidly felt better with the movement, and as I warmed to the effort I felt much better. I relied heavily on my hiking poles for balance, and the movement was more like scrambling than hiking, but for all that it felt pretty good. Soon I was moving fairly quickly. As we hiked we continued to discuss the ankle, our route, options, and the weather (low clouds but no snow yet).
Fifteen minutes up the trail we stopped for water, and I downed three ibuprofen tablets as a preventative measure. The ankle was weak, but now I was more confident that we’d make tree-line, and when Dave offered again to go back if needed, I refused. I felt capable of working with the ankle as it was, and was only really worried about further injury. A bit further up the trail we stopped again and broke out our first aid kits. I taped the ankle well, and Dave joked about the fun I’d have removing it later. (Dave is a bicyclist, and his baby smooth legs have no fear of tape.) Between the tape, the ibuprofen, and the trekking poles, I felt much better, and we were soon rolling steadily up the trail again.
Around the time we stopped for the tape job, it started to snow. The temperature was still warm (~40 degrees), and the snow began sticking wetly to the trees, and melted in slushy puddles on the trail. By the time we’d reached the North Fork Trail turn-off, the snowfall was heavy, and we began to have some difficulty finding the trail as the snow started to obscure the track. (Before the turnoff, the trail was well marked by frequent ‘cairns’ – massive piles of horse droppings – testament to the popularity of this as a stock route.)
Halfway between the North Fork turnoff and Twin Crater Lakes, we decided to leave the trail, cutting northward across the drainage to gain the lower slopes leading up to the east ridge of South Rawah. Dave pulled out his map, and we pondered our exact position. The snow was beautiful in the meadows and trees, but visibility was significantly reduced. The high ridges surrounding the area were covered with cloud, and we waited for brief glimpses of ridgelines and features when the clouds parted.
The snow made the footing a bit more slippery, but with the trekking poles, I continued to feel secure. In some areas the snow was drifting more deeply, and we occasionally took advantage of its wet, thick consistency to kick steps up small slopes. I preferred the snow slopes to the rocks, where I was forced to move more with poles and arms than legs, but the snow-filled slopes were rare in the open areas on the ridge.
Despite running slightly off course (we drifted too far north, when we should have turned more or less directly NW up the slopes) we eventually gained the lower reaches of the ridge, breaking out of tree-line. I felt the immense freedom which comes to me every time I pass above the trees. Although visibility remained limited, we could easily see the east ridgeline rising to the false summit (mentioned by Andy in his 2003 report, and even more deceptive in the current conditions).
Heading east we crossed some flatter terrain (Rockhole Lake was due S, though not visible at this elevation). We took a short break for food and water once we reached the base of the steeper section, and then headed up the slope. We discussed my ankle again, but it was a perfunctory exchange. I couldn’t rely on it entirely, but I’d become rapidly adept at compensating with the trekking poles, and felt strong.
This initial slope is not overly steep, but proved challenging in the snowy conditions. (The slope is 30-35 degrees.) The consistency of the snow had changed once we passed treeline (~11,000 on our route) – below it had been sticky and wet, but now it became loose powder. It didn’t have enough consistency to help form steps (and in any event it was usually too shallow), and yet it did a wonderful job of obscuring the rocks and depressions on the slope. Foot placement was difficult, and for me a wearisome task. At each step I went through the same ritual: test pole placements, plant the poles, shift the lame leg upward, test position, slowly weight ankle, pressure on poles, bring up other foot... repeat. The ankle was a psychological hindrance more than a physical one. Despite occasional twinges when a hidden rock shifted (and I spit curses into the slope), I felt strong, but I remained constantly anxious with the thought of re-injury.
Although the wind had increased slightly, the temperature was not extreme (only just below freezing), and the falling snow dampened all noise. In the summer season I always feel expanded by the sense of space above tree-line. Now I found myself in a tightly bound environment, cocooned by the clouds, the snow, and the silence. Except for the noise of my poles scraping and clawing at the rocks, and my breathing, there was no sound. Even the normal rush of the wind was muted. Dave climbed slightly above me, but even 20 yards away I could not hear him, unless we shouted to one another. All my attention was focused on the slope, the interface between my feet (my ankle) and the mountain.
The clouds were thick on the ridges and in the valleys, but occasionally they would sweep aside for some incredible views. Looking east we could see down to the meadow where we’d left the North Fork trail, and most of our off-trail route was visible. The vistas were all the more inspiring in their infrequency. In most cases the glimpse was too rapid for a photo, but as we approached the ‘false summit’ we had some great views of Bench Lake with the highpoint to the northeast in the background.
Once above this false summit, the slope eases. But as we crossed above 12,000 the wind, which had been blowing lightly, became more significant (blowing from the N). Many of the ridges in the area top out around 12,000, and it seemed as if we were emerging from their shadow into a rawer world. The snowfall continued to increase and visibility worsened. Now Dave, who had been leading since tree-line and could move more quickly than I, occasionally had to wait for me to catch up, so we wouldn’t lose contact.
At around 12,150, along the east ridge, there is a slight promontory which extends northward above the snowfield at the base of South Rawah’s N-NE face. As we were following the ridge, Dave followed this out (climber’s right), and then waited for me to catch up. Just as I came even with him, the clouds thinned, and we could see through the mist to the bulk of South Rawah’s NE summit cliffs. The face loomed out of the clouds, plastered with snow. Each crack and cut in the rock was etched in white. It was a fearsome and beautiful sight, and I have gooseflesh seeing it again now, in my mind. We stood and howled, screaming up the face, screaming in appreciation for the unexpected gift.
I tried to get a photo of the view, but as soon as the camera was out, the clouds streamed out of the valley again and all was gray. I’d like to have a photo, but I wouldn’t trade it for those seconds of abandoned exultation. It was a day for screaming prayers into the clouds, I guess - a day in the mountains where the tactile senses overcame all others. The face seemed close enough to touch.
We were left shaking and laughing as we headed up the final slope to the summit. It was nice to top out, but after the view up the face it was anticlimactic. I think it was in homage to the face that we went the final stretch. The summit area was harsh. Large boulders were covered in snow, and we scrambled down towards the south and sheltered in the lee of a large boulder. The wind was now strong, and ice crusted our clothing and my beard. Behind the boulder we crouched on our packs and ate and drank quickly, preparing for the descent. I broke out some energy bars (my food for the day), and we laughed as I tried to bite off now-frozen pieces. I rolled the half-eaten bars in the snow – “Frosted,” I quipped. Dave laughed when I had to chew about a hundred times for each frozen bite. His sandwiches slid down with ease, and he didn’t offer to share.
Not surprisingly the way down was more difficult than the ascent. The wind and snow continued to increase in intensity, and we walked facing away from the wind, stealing glances ahead for foot placement and route finding. Our tracks, sharply visible just 30 minutes earlier, were gone. The ridgeline to the north (skier’s left) provided an easy track, however, and we hurried along, uncomfortable in the wind.
The most brutal part for my ankle was the steeper area down from the false summit. Although the wind was lower here, the rocks were treacherous with snow, and I relied completely on my poles for balance. I didn’t time it, but it may have taken almost an hour for me to descend this section.
Once off the slope we moved much more quickly. The snow was deep, but as we approached tree-line its consistency once again became wet. Foot placement became easier, even on steeper sections. I had taken another round of ibuprofen on the ridge, and I felt strong, with little pain.
Having learned from experience, we took an easier line down to the meadow where we earlier left the North Fork Trail, staying within the tree-covered areas more, and avoiding the rocky slopes. The stream and meadow were thick with snow, and there was a deep quiet over the entire valley.
With the deeper snow we crossed back and forth in the trees, searching for the line of the North Fork Trail. We were confident we were in the right area, but the trail seemed to have disappeared. We consulted the map, zigzagged again, and Dave (who continued to break trail, saving my ankle) picked up the track which appeared as a slight depression in the snow.
Once on the trail we flew. Quickly we reached the Rawah Trail junction and headed down. The snow was ever-present now, even in these lower elevations, several inches deep where earlier there was none. Although following the trail was easy, we were moving so quickly we began to worry we’d miss turnoffs and trail junctions. “Do you remember this bridge?” “I think so. Isn’t there an open area up ahead?” Occasionally we checked the map, counting stream crossings and checking the position of the water with respect to the trail. Taking a wrong turn wouldn’t have been disastrous, but we were eager to be down, to be in the car and headed out. We speculated on the probable state of the roads down the canyon.
Finally the snow cover began to diminish and the trail became slush and mud. “Hey, there’s that grape!” A lone green grape lay in the center of the trail. We’d seen it on the way in and laughed, wondering whether anyone else crazy was out today too. A bit further on we came across a Mountain Dew bottle. We took the bottle and left the grape, hoping some critter would find it before the snow covered the trail.
Now completely confident, we rushed down the trail, almost running. My ankle felt fine, and I leapt forward with the trekking poles tapping quickly for balance. Soon we reached the flat areas and the trail opened, and it was a relief to see the parking lot emerge from the mist. Wet snow was falling thickly, but the road was mostly wet puddles. We threw the gear in the truck, cranked the heat, and started down.
On the ride out we laughed, recalling the day. My ankle had begun to ache again (the second batch of ibuprofen was wearing off), and I gingerly propped it against some gear. (It turned out to be a reasonably serious sprain, and now has acquired a rainbow bruise near the sole, where the internal bleeding pooled.) I contemplated getting more ibuprofen, but it was buried in the pack behind the seat, and I settled for warmth, hunching nearer the heater vent.
“RICE,” Dave said, “Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation.” “Yeah,” I mumbled, “when I get home.”
We were quiet for a few more bends in the road, and then I occurred to me. “You know, maybe the hike wasn’t all that bad for it… I mean, we ‘compressed’ it with the tape, and I guess you could say we ‘iced’ it by clomping through all those drifts.” (Our boots had been covered with ice and snow for most of the upper reaches of the climb). “Yeah,” Dave followed, “and you elevated it too. You hurt it at around 9000 or so, and Rawah’s 12,6.” We considered that silently for a while, grinning maniacally out at the road ahead.
Rationalizing again. It felt comfortable now, in the car on the way down, without the urgency of the discussions on the trail. But still we craned our necks to catch glimpses of snow on the canyon ridgelines. Our last looks at first snow.